Saturday, March 17, 2007

100 Great Pages: R. Crumb's "Short History of America", Page 4

Third of a series of posts about 100 great comics pages.
Links to: an introduction to the series; an index of posts by creator; an index of posts by title.

The difficulty here is deciding what counts as a 'page'. This 12-panel work has been presented in many different formats: you can buy it from the official Crumb site as a single-page poster; it was likewise presented as a single page in The Complete Crumb Volume 17 (at a size so small as to be nearly illegible); several web sites have presented it as an animation; the Guardian presented it in two parts; and so forth. (A related difficulty is that there seem to be two versions, both color and black and white -- both done by Crumb, so far as I can tell.)

Frankly, a good argument could be made that Crumb's "Short History of America" is one of those comics for which 'page' is not the relevant unit of analysis, and thus ineligible for this series.

But in the early stages of thinking about this series, I happened to check out Ivan Brunetti's Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories, in which this work (along with a very generous selection of other Crumb works, both on his own and in collaboration with Harvey Pekar) is presented. (I didn't check, but it looks to me like more Crumb is included than any other single artist.) I'd read it before -- heck, I even had the images saved on my computer -- but as sometimes happens when re-encountering great art, seeing the work in Brunetti's book made me see as if for the first time how amazing it was. (Partly this was because Brunetti's book was the first time I had ever seen the work in print, and the details of the work were simply so much clearer on a high-resolution, dead-tree screen -- and more than in any other comics I can think of, in this piece it is the details that make the work.) And so I decided that a page of this work had to be included in my hundred. And Brunetti presented the comic as a four-page work.

For that matter, there really wasn't any doubt in my mind about which page, either: it was page four. Amazing as the whole work is, it was page four that took my breath away.

It is most effective in context, however, so let me link to a few versions of the entire work. Here's all twelve panels in black and white; here are the first six panels in color (and then here are the second six). Here's a version done up as an animation, although I personally don't like that nearly as well.

If you've never seen Crumb's work before, incidentally, this is a good piece to serve as an introduction to Crumb for a number of reasons. Crumb is, by almost universal acclaim, one of the great draftsmen of his age. One aspect of his superb drawing is his drawing of the urban landscape -- which is, of course, highlighted in this piece. Crumb has a certain reputation as a social critic, too, and that is also featured at its best here.

At the same time, most of the less universally liked aspects of Crumb's work are absent. While he is not as blatantly or over-the-topic misogynistic as fellow cartoonist Dave Sim, Crumb has often, and I think justifiably, been called misogynistic. I don't know enough about his work to evaluate the charges of racism that are often hurled -- the defense is basically that Crumb isn't racist so much as misanthropic, and that reveals itself in the way he portrays everybody -- but it's there. Frankly, much as I like Crumb's drawing, I'm not crazy about his writing.

(Fortunately for those of us who feel this way, Crumb has done a fair amount of work in collaboration. He's illustrated a lot of scripts for autobiographical comics writer Harvey Pekar -- all but the most recent ones are collected in the 1996 collection Bob and Harv's Comics -- and if you don't like Crumb's writing, that's a good book to read. He's also illustrated a number of Kafka stories in R. Crumb's Kafka (first published under the title Introducing Kafka). And various of his other works tell other people's stories and thus are fairly free of (what some people see as) the pernicious elements of Crumb's work; for instance, I recommend his eight-page retelling of "The Religious Experiences of Philip K. Dick")

At any rate, "A Short History of America", despite being written* as well as drawn by Crumb, contains most of his virtues and few of his defects. And it's short, and online, so go read it**.

And now, here's page four:

(Click for larger version)

The page is beautifully drawn -- each picture is just an incredible example of draftsmanship. Crumb is a superb artist, and this is a great example of it.

But what's really astonishing here are the details -- the precise eye for the details of historical change, the slow evolution of the urban environment. Note the trolley in the top panel and the bus (not a trolley) in the second panel -- along with the bus stop sign added on the central post in the middle of the picture; and then, of course, there's the lack of any public transit in the final panel (although the there's still the bus stop sign). Note the changing styles of the cars; the changing style in the traffic light between panels two and three. Note the Texaco station becoming a stop and shop. Look at the factory in the right background being replaced by the "Greenwood Village" (what a great name!) housing. Notice the newspaper box in just the middle panel. (The one detail I don't quite get is the disappearance of the stop sign from the top to the middle panel -- why wouldn't there still be one?)

The details of course accumulate over all eleven panel transition, each change altering the details in subtle, powerful ways: this page shows only two of the eleven transitions. Nevertheless this is my favorite page (in the four-page format) because it is the part of the comic that deals with the already-urbanized environment. The first image is, of course, a purely "natural" environment; the next several transitions show the gradual development of first a town, then a city; the transition from buggies to automobiles; and so forth. But by the fourth page this has all been done: the ninth image (at the bottom of page three in the Brunetti anthology) already shows cars, traffic lights, etc. If the piece stopped there, it would have simply been a comment on the deterioration of a wilderness into a city, a clichéd and romanticized statement about the end of nature.

But it doesn't end there. It keeps going. And because of this, the piece is much richer and deeper (and forces us to go back and see that that richness and depth is already present in the first nine images as well). It is not a piece that is simply lamenting the transition, but a piece that is describing, detailing the nature of the transition. It is a piece not simply about the transformation of grass into city street, but about the changes in the style of cars and the fact that used car lots give way to stop 'n shops.

Of course it goes without saying that the changes depicted are still a simplification -- a single idealization of a complex process. But it is a simplification not just of the 'fall of the wild' storyline, but of something much more complex. Crumb's piece shows an incredible sensitivity to the urban environment, to its accumulated layers, its slow but inexorable change. It's a wonderful brief work -- a unique comics piece that is all but impossible to imagine in any other medium.**** And it is the fourth page, above all, that forces upon us the realization of the richness and depth that the entire twelve-panel series has.

Epilogue: Page four is the end of the work "A Short History of America" as originally printed in 1979, and as frequently reprinted (on, for example, this color poster as sold on Crumb's official web site). But nine years later Crumb did a sequel of sorts -- three panels which represent three possible futures, each a different answer to the question "what next?" These panels are fun -- you can see them here -- but I think they work best as an epilogue -- a sequel -- rather than thinking about them as part of the original work. The original work is better without them; they work better read separately, as (what they in fact were) a later, if related, piece.

One thing one can see from the epilogue, in fact, is that Crumb is better at history than at SF. This is not simply because the SF scenes portrayed in the epilogue -- the three possible futures -- are clichéd, although they are. It's because the slow changes that really capture the feel of historical change in the original twelve-panel piece aren't present in the SF epilogue: Crumb just jumps straight to three possible futures. Nor does he do so in a way that allows us to easily imagine the "missing" panels between the twelfth panel of the original work and any one of the given futures. Thus each of the three futures portrayed in the epilogue is portrayed at a level of generality that is the equivalent of what Crumb avoided in the piece as a whole with page four -- each is a simple, single transition, a change of state to be celebrated or lamented. Whereas the original piece portrays a process of complex and multiple changes, and is therefore in the end much better history than the (projected and imagined) history of the epilogue.*****

The epilogue is fun, but the original "Short History of America" is brilliant. And it's all due to page four.

* Yes, written: and by that I don't just mean the title nor the question at the end of the final panel. As I understand it, comics "writing" includes the construction of the story (or narrative or information to be conveyed) and -- often -- the breakdown of what various panels should contain. It's not just limited to words.

** Yes, read: even though it's a silent comic, for the same reason given in the footnote above for "write": what "read" means*** (when applied to comics) is not process the words, but read the comic -- to perform the acts of closure (in Scott McCloud's vocabulary) that turns two pictures into a comic, imagining them as related by time and not space (despite their actual spatial juxtaposition). Thus one can, and does, read even wordless comics (whereas one looks at single paintings or drawings.

*** Of course "read" can mean "analyze", for both prose texts and comics (as well as films, paintings, etc); but that's not what I'm discussing here.

**** Not quite, I suppose, since as I pointed out several people made animations of it, and one can imagine making a 'full' animation of it in which each change was added individually. But I think the comics version works better, actually: allows one to really see and explore the details in a way that the animation does not.

***** This isn't a necessity of the switch from history to SF, incidentally. Great SF (at least of a certain kind) portrays, or at least suggests, a transition as complex and multifaceted as that which Crumb details in his twelve-panel history. For an example of a "three-possible scenario" SF portrait along the lines which Crumb sketches in the epilogue which does equal the richness of Crumb's history, see Kim Stanley Robinson's "Three California's" trilogy -- The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge, which projects (from its composition in the 1980's) three possible futures for Orange County, California, each of which feels rich and real and true in a way that Crumb's SF fails to be (but which his history succeeds in being -- thanks to page four).

1 comment:

Matt Brady said...

I'm loving this series of yours, Stephen. Excellent analysis of the story here, and you've pointed out to me what makes it a good story and more than just a joke. Nicely done.

You might be interested in my look at An Anthology of Graphic Fiction that I did last month on my blog. It's less of a review and more of just pointing out which stories I liked, but it was fun to do. And yeah, lots of Crumb in there, but really good stuff. I need to read more of his comics. There was a bunch of Chris Ware, also, but there might have been more Crumb, justified by the addition of Pekar on some of the stories.